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Study: Many Young Children Lagging in Cognitive Skills at Age 8

An analysis of 13,000 young children tracked from kindergarten entry through middle school found that only about a third of them were on track with cognitive skills by 3rd grade, underlining the need for a comprehensive early-childhood education, particularly for low-income children, according to a new report from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The foundation, which publishes an annual ranking of child well-being called the Kids Count Data Book, released its findings Monday in a policy report called The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success.

The findings are based on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten, a federally-funded data collection effort that tracked children who were in kindergarten in 1998-99 school year to spring 2007, when most would have been in 8th grade. The federal data collection process asked the participating children questions to assess their literacy, math skills, and science skills. The foundation defines scoring at or above the national average on all three subjects as meeting cognitive development benchmarks. 

The data analysis showed that by 3rd grade, 56 percent were on track with physical development, 70 percent with social and emotional growth, and 74 percent in their level of school engagement.

But digging into the numbers revealed disparities between the overall group's well-being, and the well-being of black children, Hispanic children, and children growing up in poverty. For example, 19 percent of 3rd graders in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line—in 2001, that was $35,920 for a family of four—were hitting their cognitive development milestones. In comparison, 50 percent of children in families above that income level hit that mark. 

The analysis also showed that 14 percent of black children and 19 percent of Hispanic children were on track in cognitive development. 

The results were striking, said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy for the foundation. Also noteworthy was the connection between family education and income. In more than half of the low-income families with children under age 8, the head of the household had a high school degree or less. In half of the higher-income families, the head of the household had at least a bachelor's degree. 

The report offers several policy prescriptions that the foundation believes can address these gaps. Among them are quality birth-through-8 education programs targeted at children from low-income families; and promoting communication and joint training between early-childhood care providers and schools, so that children's needs don't get lost in the transition from day care and preschool to kindergarten. 

 

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